Spaces of Transformation and Discovery

By Reena Devi

In her fifth piece for GRC, Reena Devi enters spaces alter to the city; beginning with contemporaneity’s aestheticisation of the rural in the latest anti-blockbuster-blockbuster Guggenheim offering, she traverses the rural into the nautical, and finally the spiritual. Holding close the notion that there are diverse spaces to plumbed, even amidst the ones that seem so familiar to our everyday.

Countryside, The Future; on view February 20, 2020 to August 14, 2020. Image courtesy of David Heald.

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Recently, Countryside, The Future, a large scale exhibition addressing environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues of exigency opened at the Guggenheim in New York. Helmed by architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, Director of AMO, the think tank of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), in collaboration with the museum, the show looks at the “radical changes in the rural, remote and wild territories collectively identified here as ‘countryside’ or the 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities.”

The exhibition is impossible to miss with a looming Deutz-Fahr tractor outside, a “brutal and rare presence in New York”, according to Koolhaas. The installations in the exhibition, including walls on each level papered continuously with large images and texts, is based on original investigations by AMO, Koolhaas, and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; Wageningen University, Netherlands; and the University of Nairobi. While the show itself has proven to be divisive, with New York magazine describing it as akin to “hanging around an 8-year-old with a sugar high and a Ph.D.”, it is worth noting there is a growing appetite for spaces beyond the urban landscape we are so used to seeing all over the world.

Standing on the street of any newly developed major business and shopping district in Taipei or Manila feels no different to me. They are not the only cities in Asia with this phenomenon. Even the Instagram friendly panoramic views of cities by the water—Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai etc—take a beat for you to identify by locating the landmarks that make it distinct. Those landmarks themselves often tend to be concrete structures of urban and hypermodern excellence, housing a megalith corporate entity or more.

While it is remarkable to build such cities and who doesn’t love a good skyscraper, we cannot ignore this primal yearning for spaces that are unique and rare and maybe even, untouched. Yes, this yearning is spoken with the privilege of a lifelong city dweller but I am not just talking about rural spaces but diverse and distinctive spaces that hold a potential for transformation and knowledge.

Recently, upon returning from a work trip to yet another developed city in Asia (for a moment during that trip, when I looked down the road I was standing on in the midst of the new shopping district, I thought I was at Marina Bay in Singapore, which is not to say these two places looked the same, but the imagery was congruent), I found myself reading and looking at images of deep-sea exploration.

I was particularly bowled over by Swiss oceanographer and engineer Jacques Picard’s 1960 exploration of the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, along with Lt. Don Walsh from the United States Army. After almost 5 hours, they reached a depth of approximately 10,900 meters, the first people to go so deep. While the bathyscaphe Picard designed and built to take them down could not document the expedition or gather any data, the sheer vision, spirit of discovery, and tenacity it took to explore such spaces beyond our realm of comprehension is mind-boggling. These voyages of discovery, both past and present, are good reminders of the diversity and distinctiveness of our natural environment, lest we be so consumed in creating carbon copies of spaces we are familiar with. I am not sure I want to see yet another typical city landscape on a planet we make habitable in the future. Same goes for any remotely possible future underwater cities.

The bathyscaphe Trieste, the vehicle that carried Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Image courtesy of Don Walsh, Encyclopædia Britannica.

Thanks to this deep-rooted yearning for diverse spaces, I recently found myself obsessively following all the Instagram stories by one of my favourite travel bloggers Alex Reynolds. She is currently visiting the wintry Kyrgyzstan with its mountain ranges, snowy plains, villages, yurts, and so much more. I do not intend to paint an idyllic image of spaces beyond the city—there are definitely challenges and issues. Prior to this, Reynolds shared snapshots of her travels through Saudi Arabia. She was very open about travelling as a woman and person of colour in the country while appreciating its culture and surprisingly diverse landscape and towns.

There was a moment at the end of her Saudi trip when she captured the landscape and the sun looming overhead while standing at The Edge of the World (Jebel Fihrayn), the name of a rugged desert terrain near Riyadh, with an uninterrupted view of the horizon. Even just glimpsing it through my phone, the entire space and view felt otherworldly and transcendent. Almost as if just by being there, you are transformed.

It brought to mind a concept I had read about when I used to visit Japan. Whether you believe in it or not, the notion of power spots which was a spiritual craze in the country, is fascinating to contemplate. It began in the 90s when Kiyota Masuaki, a so-called psychic known for bending spoons amongst other things, came up with the term “power spot” to refer to a place where the energy of the earth is collected. It is believed that visiting such spaces can be healing and transformative.

This idea gathered steam in 2000 with increasing public interest in spirituality and Feng Shui, and more people visiting Shinto shrines. By the end of 2009, power spots were written and talked about on TV. Interestingly, power spots are mostly to be found in the countryside and mountains such as Mount Fuji, but also in places in the city such as the Meiji Shrine, located near major shopping districts in Tokyo.

The idea of power spots as spaces where energy from the land is the strongest and can even possess transformative and healing elements is not a contemporary one, nor is it unique to Asia. In Celtic mythology, ley lines is the term used for magical and mystical alignments in the earth connecting various spaces where people travelled to or gathered and felt healed or changed.

It is a wild notion to consider but maybe in the future, instead of creating carbon copies of hyper-contemporary cities, we should start cultivating power spots. Perhaps that is how we create diverse spaces for future habitation, a realm of possibility for transformation and discovery.

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